Wednesday the 18th is the day Ana and Thea from The Book Smugglers are reviewing Melusine over here, and I’ll be over there with a review of Dead Witch Walking. Their review will be up tomorrow morning. I’ll be gone at work all day tomorrow and after that I desperately need to go grocery shopping, but when I get back I’ll put up the link to the review on their blog. At least I should be back earlier than tonight… it’s 10 and I haven’t even had dinner yet (of course, I ordered food when I got back an hour and a half ago and it’s still not here yet).

Inside Straight
by George R. R. Martin
432pp (Paperback)
My Rating: 7.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.18/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.6/5

Inside Straight is the first of a trilogy of newer books set in the Wild Cards universe of superheroes. The sequel, Busted Flush, was released in December 2008 and the next book, Suicide Kings, should be released around December 2009. There are also 17 older books in the series, and most of these are written as anthologies containing contributions by several different authors. Inside Straight is also a compilation novel, a complete story with portions written by Daniel Abraham, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Carrie Vaughn, Michael Cassutt, Caroline Spector, John Jos. Miller, George R. R. Martin, Ian Tregillis, and S. L. Farrell.

Wild Cards take place in our world with one big difference: shortly after World War II, an alien virus that changes human DNA swept through the world. This virus killed 90% of people affected, but 9% only became deformed (jokers) and the lucky remaining 1% developed awesome superpowers (aces). At least some of the aces gained amazing superpowers, while others (deuces) just had silly powers that did not seem particularly useful for anything.

Inside Straight demonstrates that in spite of the existence of superheroes, much of the world is still the same as ours, including the popularity of reality TV shows. Various aces audition for the opportunity to compete on the new show American Hero, which is similar to the typical reality show but with more card analogies. Once chosen, the contestants are divided into four teams: Aces, Hearts, Clubs, and Diamonds. Each team must learn to work together to complete challenges, such as rescuing some stuntmen and a fake baby from a burning building. The winning team has immunity from elimination while each of the three losing teams has to select a teammate to send to the discard pile. Discarded members are no longer eligible to win but live together in a mansion and continue to provide entertaining footage for the show. Meanwhile, there is political upheaval in the Middle East but it is overshadowed by the American Hero craze that is sweeping the nation.

This is the first Wild Cards book I have read and it worked well as an introduction to the series even though there were several other books published before Inside Straight. There were some people and events referred to that I suspect were discussed in more detail in previous installments (particularly Peregrine and Fortunato’s backstories) but I never felt lost.

This novel was very easy to get into, difficult to put down, and a lot of fun to read. I did feel that the end was not as good as the earlier part of the novel. This was mainly because I really liked some of the characters introduced toward the beginning, such as Curveball and Earth Witch, and they no longer had their own sections toward the end of the book since most authors stuck to one or two characters for their section and the next one would focus on a different hero or set of heroes. The only character who had a point of view throughout the book was Jonathan Hive, who had sections in between the others and lots of blog entries (he joined the show because he was an aspiring journalist and wanted to write about it on his blog).

The other reason I did not like the end as much was because even though I hate reality TV, I was enjoying reading about it and and the various characters interacting with each other. Although I did like the fact that the heroes went from doing challenges that didn’t matter to making a difference in the real world, I also did not find it as much fun to read about. The conflict was also only introduced a little at the beginning so it was a bit disorienting to jump back to it and I had trouble keeping track of the characters who had been mentioned in that one little section when it came up again later.

With the exception of one or two characters, the powers were either too specific to be extraordinarily powerful or had a disadvantage in place to keep them from being too great. For instance, there was one character who could split into smaller copies of himself, but his intelligence was divided among all of him so the more copies he made, the stupider they were. Another contestant, Stuntman, was capable of healing from any sort of injury; however, he did not recover immediately, and the worse the injury, the longer it took him to recuperate.

Several of the characters were not at all static and my favorite to read about was Ana (Earth Witch), who really did not care about winning the title of “American Hero.” Although she could dig a hole in the ground using her mind, she thought her power very unexceptional and auditioned for the show only at the urging of her brother. She was shocked when she made the cut and later underwent a transformation of her attitude toward her powers as the challenges and some help from Curveball helped her discover her capabilities. Other favorites were Curveball (an overall nice girl who could control any object she threw), Jonathan Hive (the aspiring journalist who could transform part of or all of himself into wasps), and The Amazing Bubbles (a former modelling superstar whose power relied on being fat).

There were also plenty of amusing conversations and situations. I particularly liked the description of the first challenge for Ana’s team. Everyone on the team tried to think of a way to use their powers to rescue people from a fire and it was only after failing miserably that someone thought to try the nearby fire hose.

Inside Straight was a delightful read populated with well-written characters with some unique powers. Although I didn’t find myself as interested at the end of the novel due to the changes in character point of view, I did enjoy it and look forward to reading Busted Flush.


Other Reviews:

The first eight chapters of Diamond Star, the next book in Catherine Asaro’s Skolian Saga, are available on the Baen website. Diamond Star will be released in May 2009. Here is the description from Amazon:

Del was a rock singer. He was also the renegade son of the Ruby Dynasty, which made his career choice less than respectable, and gave him more to worry about than getting gigs and not getting cheated by recording companies, club owners, or his agent. For one thing, the Ruby Dynasty ruled the Skolian Imperialate, an interstellar Empire, which had recently had a war with another empire, the Eubian Concord. For another, Del was singing on Earth, which was part of a third interstellar civilization, and one which had an uneasy relationship with the Imperialate. Del undeniably had talent, and was rapidly rising from an unknown fringe artist to stardom. But, with his life entangled in the politics of three interstellar civilizations, whether he wanted that or not, talent might not be enough. And that factor might have much more effect than his music on the lives of trillions of people on the thousands of inhabited worlds across the galaxy.


John at Grasping for the Wind has another meme. Given the success of the last one, I figured I’d better add to the list. The instructions are as follows:
Here is how it works: Find a favorite book, movie, or videogame review (Science fiction and fantasy related) that you have written, no matter where it was posted, and add it to the following list. Make sure to repost the whole list, because in doing so, we accumulate what the reviewers themselves think is their best work, and give each other some linkages, increasing everyone’s rankings.

Use the format of [Blog /Website Name] – [Book Name in CAPS w/ Link] by [Book Author Name]

It was hard to pick just one, but I ended up going with The Book of Joby (after considering Archangel Protocol, Blood and Iron, The Player of Games, and Maledicte).

The Book Review Meme @ Grasping for the Wind

1. Grasping for the Wind – INFOQUAKE by David Louis Edelman
2. Age 30+ … A Lifetime of Books – A COMPANION TO WOLVES by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear
3. Dragons, Heroes and Wizards – ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE by Robin Hobb
4. Walker of Worlds – THE TEMPORAL VOID by Peter F Hamilton
5. Neth Space – TOLL THE HOUNDS by Steven Erikson
6. Dark in the Dark – GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY by M.R. James
7. A Dribble of Ink – THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
8. Fantasy Book News & Reviews – EMPRESS by Karen Miller
9. Fantasy Debut – ACACIA by David Anthony Durham Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Overall Review Afterthought
10. All Booked Up – THE BLUE SWORD by Robin McKinley
11. Fantasy Cafe – THE BOOK OF JOBY by Mark J. Ferrari
12. AzureScape – ANATHEM by Neal Stephenson
13. The Book Smugglers – THE INFERIOR by Peadar O’Guilin
14. Besotted Bookworm – PARANORMAL FICTION FEAST by Christine Feehan, Julie Kramer, and Jayne Castle
15. Renee’s Book Addiction – WANDERLUST by Ann Aguirre
16. – THE BLACK SHIP by Diana Pharaoh Francis
17. Literary Escapism – FOR A FEW DEMONS MORE by Kim Harrison (with spoilers)
18. Speculative Horizons – THE TERROR by Dan Simmons
19. Stella Matutina – NEW AMSTERDAM by Elizabeth Bear
20. Variety SF – MISSION OF GRAVITY by Hal Clement
21. WISB/F&SF Lovin’ Blog – SEABORN by Chris Howard
22. Highlander’s Book reviews – A MADNESS OF ANGELS by Kate Griffin
23. The Old Bat’s Belfry – THE CROWN CONSPIRACY by Michael J. Sullivan
24. Dark Wolf’s Fantasy Reviews – THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
25. The Sci-Fi Gene – PERDIDO STREET STATION by China Mieville
26. Against the Nothing – MAY BIRD AND THE EVER AFTER by Jodi Lynn Anderson
27. Flight into Fantasy – AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman
28. Subliminal Intervention – UNWIND by Neal Shusterman
29. Items of Interest – BITTEN TO DEATH by Jennifer Rardin
30. Necromancy Never Pays– FICTION AND LIES by Daniel Waters

Edit: Updated book review list – 03/06/09


Kristen and I saw Coraline tonight…excellent job overall. The pacing seemed a bit off to me, a little slow to get going, a little quick at the finish, but it came through with all the wonderfully screwed-up humor and perspective I’ve come to expect from Neil Gaiman. I haven’t read the book, or any of Gaiman’s “children’s” books, actually–being a grad student and teaching four courses a semester has annexed most of the time I’d normally dedicate to such things–but I may have to pick it up.

I thought the stop-motion animation style really fits the attitude that pervades Coraline and many of Gaiman’s other works. Though Dave McKean and company did some fantastic work on Mirrormask, the visual style never completely clicked for me. Obviously there’s a tremendous difference in budget there, but as in The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, and other similar films the aesethetics of stop-motion added tremendously to both the wild imagination and childlike perspective of the movie. If Coraline had been done as either pure CGI or mixed live-action and effects it would have been too much glitz. For example, the opening sequence consisted of nothing more than restuffing a doll, but the visuals were creepy, grotesque, and charming all at once, which is more than could have been asked for from CGI…but exactly what the story needed.

I also have to say that I loved Gaiman’s take on the Cheshire Cat, as well as the whole Alice in Wonderland transfomation in general. It was a little painful to sit through what I’d call an extended setup showing how Coraline’s parents were ignoring her. (Though, I’d have to say she didn’t help the situation since she passed up the one time her mother did reach out to her, so it’s not all a bad-parent sort of story.) It didn’t seem to fit the rest of the story since those sort of extended sledgehammer-to-the-forehead type backstories are usually a feature of stories targeted at young children while the rest of the movie was decidedly adult in complexity and theme, but maybe I’m just missing how they expect young children to enjoy the second half of the movie because I was so absorbed in interpreting it on a different level.

Anyway, short version is: good flick, go see it.

Childhood’s End
by Arthur C. Clarke
256pp (Paperback)
My Rating: 7.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.94/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.01/5

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke has become a classic of science fiction since its publication in 1953 and has been very influential in the genre. This fairly short, stand alone novel is light on characterization but heavy on ideas. For some reason I’d categorized this book in my head as “scary science fiction” that I’d probably find dry or difficult to read, but that was not the case at all. Although I did find it moved slowly toward the middle, it was a very thoughtful book and I enjoyed it very much.

Childhood’s End is divided into three parts, each exploring a different theme. The first section deals with the arrival of a fleet of spaceships in the sky over Earth, beginning the reign of the aliens known as the Overlords. These Overlords create a peaceful utopia in which not even cruelty to animals exists. Their leader, Karellen, will only speak to Rikki Stormgren, the Secretary General of the United Nations, although none of the Overlords will allow any human to know what they look like. Because of this, people distrust the aliens even though they have made the world a better place for its inhabitants. Rikki informs Karellen that humanity would feel better if they knew what the Overlords look like, but Karellen says that the people of Earth are not yet ready to handle the knowledge of their new ruler’s appearance. Once 50 years have passed and most people do not remember a time without the Overlords, Karellen and his kind will reveal themselves.

The second part of the story is about the golden age that appears once humanity has accepted the Overlords. Poverty and war are nonexistent, crime is exceedingly rare, and no one has to work if they do not want to. However, creativity and scientific discovery have dwindled – after all, what is the point of exploring new theories when the Overlords have known about them for ages? Also, it remains to be seen why the aliens are interested in Earth and if there is a price to be paid for their influence, which is the topic of the third and final section.

Despite being over fifty years old, much of the power of Childhood’s End is still in the revelations that unfold throughout the course of the story. Because of this I am only going to speak in very general terms here, but suffice it to say that I found the various revelations, along with their impact on humanity (both what was discussed and what actually happened), to be the most interesting part of the book and well worth the relatively short time investment required to read the book.

The first section was very intriguing. The changes made by the Overlords and the speculation on what they looked like and what they were hiding made me very curious about their true intentions for Earth. I was enjoying reading about the Secretary General’s attempts to see Karellen and when the mystery of the aliens’ appearance was finally cleared up at the end, I thought it was just starting to get good.

I found the story told during humanity’s golden age to be less interesting overall, though there were some interesting aspects to that world. Much of the beginning of this was exposition on the world the Overlords had created, but it was quite fascinating to read about the problems resulting from near perfection since they were so plausible. Even though people were more educated than ever before, creative works drastically decreased. Art and literature are outlets for making statements and if everything is perfect, it does not leave much room for expression and making points about social injustice and conflicts. Once the advantages and disadvantages of the golden age were established, the focus changed to some new characters and events that did not make much sense until later. It was still more drawn out than it needed to be, but it did at least seem as though there was a point to it in the end.

None of the characters were particularly well developed and the only really interesting ones were the mysterious Overlords with their unclear motivation. Throughout this short book, there were several characters who played a role but this was a concept-heavy story and not a character driven one. Although a lack of characterization is often a deal breaker for me, the story was interesting enough that I wanted to find out what happened anyway and read through until the bitter end (which was rather depressing).

Childhood’s End is a thoughtful novel examining society containing a bit of a mystery concerning the Overlords and their intentions for the world. There are some pacing issues and characterization is not explored, but those aspects are not why you read a book like Childhood’s End. It is about reflecting on both our past and our future, and in that area there are many well developed ideas and a fascinating future scenario.